Conference Call Concentration
December 27, 2016 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I am on conference calls for most of the day. I get a lot out of the calls when I'm a focused and active participant, but sitting at my desk, I find it extremely hard to concentrate and not multi-task.

When I work from home, I can wash dishes or tidy up while participating, and this seems to be ideal, but at work, my multi-tasking takes the form of doing other work on my PC or browsing the internet, etc. That doesn't really work as I get distracted from the call.

Any ideas on things to do to keep me busy enough to focus? I sit in a cubicle, so something very visible like knitting is not going to work, but something like doodling or doing hand strength exercises would be okay. I have a good headset, but it's wired, so no pacing. Holding the meetings in person is not an option - our team is spread out around the globe. Willing to buy small props.

Most of my coworkers have the same problem - often these calls become one person speaking to a group that's half-listening, so if I find a good solution, maybe it could become an office-wide thing.

I am certain this has been asked before, but I couldn't find anything.
posted by valeries to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
When I'm stuck in front of a computer and need to focus on a call where I'm not really speaking up, the only thing that works for me is to turn off my monitor. I have pretty good willpower but it's pretty impossible to avoid noticing the "new mail" icon when it pops up and to drift into clicking around on my computer, and then to realize I've missed 5 minutes of what has been said.

Once the monitor is off, I find I naturally pick up whatever is going to work for me - some days that's staring out a window, some days that's doodling, some days that's cleaning my desk.
posted by iminurmefi at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

The big problem with conference calls is they can just drag on forever compared to live meetings. (Probably because everyone is in their own space and is more comfortable.) I think having a clear agenda and meeting timeframe helps any meeting, but especially conference calls. Another good practice is quickly determining when something needs to be a sidebar - as in "this topic won't be solved now, and needs its own committee/meeting/whatever."

But that's not really what you're asking, and you may not have the power to make those changes.

I'm a big fan of writing/sketching/doodling with paper and pen while in meetings. It sometimes looks like I'm not paying attention, but it honestly helps me stay focused. I usually end a meeting with a page or two that is half doodles and half brief notes.

I have one of these hand exercisers that I find really helpful during conference calls. I originally got it to combat carpal tunnel pain, and it helps with that. But it's also helpful for stress and boredom.
posted by Cranialtorque at 8:21 AM on December 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I feel your pain. I wind up on 3-4 calls a day sometimes, and I'm often a "high level observer," meaning if everything is going right I have few actions to take resulting from them. But I've got to be aware of how things are unfolding (or think I do, or am expected to).

To the extent I *have* solved this problem, I've done it similarly to iminurmefi, but rather than turn the monitor off, I close my eyes or sit back in my chair, away from the keyboard and mouse, and look at something on the wall. It may help here if you practice any sort of prayer/meditation, as of course closing your eyes can also result in instant and deep sleep.

Obviously you may not have your choice of what meetings to be in or how much you care about them, but frankly I've had to give myself permission to zone out of some meetings. Or if one person starts talking and you know their particular report means NOTHING to you, check email while they're talking and tune back in when they stop.

And if and as you have a chance, reduce meetings in your organization. They are such energy killers. They are sometimes necessary, but so much of the agenda is driven by ego and CYA.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:41 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Take notes?
posted by kevinbelt at 8:44 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a particular part of my desk that I consider the "meeting area". I can turn away from my computer and just focus on my calendar and a couple of family pictures and my office supplies (okay, toys), and there's just enough there to keep me "busy" without distracting me.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on December 27, 2016

This depends on how visible or acceptable you think this is, but lots of people at my work have some form of Silly Putty on their desks just for this. (The trendy kind at work is Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:54 AM on December 27, 2016

Autistic fidget toys!
posted by PinkMoose at 9:11 AM on December 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Could you schedule a conference room to inhabit during the call? A different environment might help with the urge to multitask.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:44 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this too. Turn off your monitor, put your personal phone away, and take notes. If there's an agenda for the meeting, print it out and take notes on it by hand. Doodling is also a good activity. (Studies show it helps people pay attention/learn stuff.)

If you're getting really restless, can you stand up and do some leg lifts? How about some squats? Stretches or balancing exercises are good too.

I cannot imagine doing conference calls all day. I struggle with doing them for an hour at a time! If you have any control over scheduling them, I'd try to spread them out throughout the week. Good luck!
posted by purple_bird at 9:55 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I often get up from my computer desk and go to my dining room table with my notebook and a pen, and take notes there.

This has the effect of making the call the most "interesting" thing, which helps a LOT. Bonus: I have the best notes of ANYBODY.
posted by uberchet at 10:19 AM on December 27, 2016

Similar to fiercecupcake's suggestion--I have one of those tiny tubs of Play Doh at my desk that someone was handing out instead of candy at Halloween. The other day I was on a call and was getting restless so I got out the Play Doh and it was GREAT. For a while I just squeezed it in my hand like a stressball, but later I started making things with it--little spheres, cubes, cylinders. I find the tiny tub contains the perfect amount. Plus the scent is very nostalgic since my brother and I used to play with it as kids.

One caveat--it did dry out my hands quite a bit, so make sure you have hand lotion too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2016

Take notes, knit, look at kitten pictures...
posted by salvia at 10:26 AM on December 27, 2016

Ask for a wireless headset.
posted by rhizome at 10:47 AM on December 27, 2016

We've recently started using video conferencing during our team meetings via WebEx or Blue Jeans and being able to see the other participants (and knowing that I'm visible myself) definitely helps focus my attention. I know most people feel self-conscious on camera and it may take a few times for people to get comfortable with it, but if you can convince your colleagues to give video a try, you might find it helps keep everyone focused and more engaged. Otherwise, everything suggested above about minimizing visual distractions and taking notes is probably your best bet.
posted by platinum at 10:52 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

How casual/formal is your office? The department I work in keeps coloring books and mini lego sets on hand for this sort of thing - but we're definitely on the casual side of things.
posted by okayokayigive at 3:03 PM on December 27, 2016

Even in an open cubicle I knit. Even in my old white dude office, the problem of multitasking on conference calls is so endemic that having a this-is-how-I-pay-attention solution is totally accepted. KNIT ON!
posted by mercredi at 5:40 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you have a tablet, coloring book apps. If you don't have a tablet, an actual coloring book. It's bound to be less conspicuous than knitting. (FWIW, I knit. But in a professional environment knitting can work against you.)
posted by Lexica at 9:37 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your help! I had some silly putty at home already, so brought it in to work and it has done the trick. I will keep all of these ideas in my back pocket for when the silly putty stops working so well. Thanks again!
posted by valeries at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

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